Over a 10-day period, people with Covid-19 were not asked where they thought they might have acquired the virus as the country’s contact tracers struggled to overcome a backlog of calls.
From December 29 until January 8, the questions asked of people who had tested positive for the virus were scaled back significantly in order for that backlog to be cleared.
At that time, the scale of Covid-19 infection here was ballooning exponentially, while the country's four contact tracing centres were faced with a backlog of more than 5,000 calls to be made to positive cases for several days running.
During that time, the checklist for tracing calls was reduced with tracers under instruction not to ask ‘possible sources of transmission’.
This decision, taken by the HSE’s Contact Management Programme (CMP), meant that no data was collected as to what location the virus may have been picked up from, such as hospitality settings like pubs and restaurants which remained open prior to Christmas Day.
The HSE was asked for comment as to the rationale for the decision, and as to how it may have affected the integrity of its data on clusters, but had not replied at the time of publication.
The news casts doubt over the recent assertion by CMP that positive cases were being driven by social gatherings such as funerals and weddings, given that information was not being asked for by contact tracers.
Tracers are of the opinion that the scale of information collected was reduced both in order to fast-track through the backlog of calls, and also because non-clinical people had been brought on board to handle calls they had not been trained for and for which they earn a lower wage.
As of January 9, tracers are once again asking positive cases where they may have picked up the virus.
However, in official records, the response is limited to options within a drop-down menu, with any answer other than a healthcare setting, travel, or close contact with a confirmed case being reduced to ‘community transmission’.
Meanwhile, tracers are likewise not presently recording a confirmed case’s symptoms, or whether or not they have been admitted to a hospital for any reason over the previous 14 days.
There is precedent for scaling down the levels of information gathered from cases — the same move was made in each of the first two national lockdowns also as cases spiralled.
One tracer said that the current lockdown “would be a great time to have the additional information of transmission source because it would help the public know whether the Government made the right call or not”.
“At present they have no data with which to make up their minds, just anecdotes and whatever they see in the media.”